Liberty Matters

On Duty Perfect and Imperfect


According to Nicholas Buccola, Frederick Douglass believed that “individuals have the right and the imperfect duty to use force in the defense of the natural rights of others.” Quoting from the Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, Buccola explains that a “perfect duty” is one that “must be fulfilled under any circumstances,” whereas an imperfect duty “may be overridden” in particular circumstances and “allows a significant degree of freedom” in how we discharge the duty.
I find this explanation a bit confusing. At the very least it deviates from the traditional meanings of “perfect” and “imperfect,” as these adjectives were applied to “rights” and “duties” for several centuries by political philosophers.
As commonly viewed today, rights are enforceable moral claims. Historically, these were often called “perfect rights,” in contrast to the “imperfect rights” that create moral obligations that presuppose voluntary compliance. For example, when 17th- and 18th-century philosophers spoke of the “right to charity” and the corresponding obligation to be charitable, they usually (though not always) meant to signify “imperfect” rights and duties, i.e., something we ought to do, as a matter of conscience, but not something that we may legitimately be compelled to do. The so-called imperfect right of a poor person to charity meant that others have a moral obligation to assist those in need, but this claim cannot properly be enforced by coercive means; it depends instead on the voluntary choices and actions of moral agents. By the early 19th century, this dual usage of perfect and imperfect rights had pretty much died out, and the term “a right” was generally used thereafter to designate a moral duty that can be enforced, either through coercive laws or through violent self-defense by individuals. 
Similarly, a “perfect duty” was conceived as an enforceable moral obligation, whereas an “imperfect duty” was seen as a moral obligation that requires voluntary compliance. Duties and rights, in this scheme, are simply reverse sides of the same coin. If I have a perfect right to my freedom, then others have a perfect duty to respect my freedom. That is to say, if others attempt to violate my freedom, then I have a right (though not an obligation) to resist them by force. If, in contrast, I have an imperfect right to be treated fairly by my friends, then they have an imperfect duty to treat me fairly. If my friends treat me unfairly, then I may attempt to persuade them to change their behavior, but I may not use force or the threat of force in the attempt.
Although Hugo Grotius outlined the basic distinction between perfect and imperfect rights and duties in his highly influential book, The Rights of War and Peace (1625), it was left to Samuel Pufendorf to explain the distinction more fully and to coin the labels “perfect” and “imperfect.” As Pufendorf wrote in On the Law of Nature and Nations (1688):
[S]ome things are due to us by a perfect, others by an imperfect right. When what is due us on the former score is not voluntarily given, it is the right of those in enjoyment of natural liberty to resort to violence and war in forcing another to furnish it, or, if we live within the same state, an action against him in law is allowed; but what is due on the latter score cannot be claimed by war or extorted by a threat of the law. Writers frequently designate a perfect right by the additional words, “his own,” as they say, for example, a man demands this by his own right. But the reason why some things are due us perfectly and others imperfectly, is because among those who live in a state of mutual natural law there is a diversity in the rules of this law, some of which conduce to the merely existence of society, others to an improved existence. And since it is less necessary that the latter be observed towards another than the former, it is, therefore, reasonable that the former can be extracted more rigorously than that latter, for it is foolish to prescribe a medicine far more troublesome and dangerous than the disease.[30]
Stephen Buckle explains the historical importance of Pufendorf’s discussion as follows:
Pufendorf’s way of drawing this distinction [between perfect and imperfect rights and obligations] is a hint in the direction of modern distinctions between law and morals: between what we can be compelled to do by others, on the one hand, and, on the other, what our own humanity should compel us to do, without external enforcement…. Imperfect obligation arises only within the agent, unaccompanied by an external power to compel action…. Imperfect obligation is centrally a matter of the conscience.[31]
Frederick Douglass, according to Buccola, believed that we have an “imperfect duty” to defend the rights of others. Given the concept of “imperfect” used by Buccola, this means that this duty may be “overridden” in some cases and that it allows considerable discretion in how it is exercised. Now, I have read a fair amount by Douglass over the years, and I don’t recall encountering this theory in his writings. For one thing, with the exception of Lysander Spooner, Wendell Phillips, and a perhaps a few other abolitionists, I don’t think the abolitionists were especially interested in developing the fine points of political theory. But Buccola is far better versed in the ideas of Douglass than I am, so I will accept his interpretation for the sake of this discussion.
I don’t wish to overstress how my notion of perfect and imperfect duties differs from that proposed by Buccola. This may be nothing more than a terminological disagreement that doesn’t amount to much in the final analysis. But I do have a problem with the argument that we have even an “imperfect duty” (as Buccola uses the phrase) to defend the rights of other people. That we have a perfect right to defend not only our own rights but the rights of others as well I do not contest. But this right does not entail a duty, whether imperfect or perfect, to defend the rights of others. True, all rights carry corresponding duties, but the correlative duty of the right to defend others is simply the duty (moral obligation) of third parties not to interfere, by force, with our defense, provided our defense is just. If a third party forcibly interferes with my effort to assist an innocent victim of invasive violence, then both I and the victim may use violence to resist the third party.
My point runs parallel to the individual right of self-defense. Although I have a perfect (enforceable) right to defend myself against an aggressor, I do not have a duty to do so. This is a matter of personal choice and will depend on my values. However much we may disagree with the pacifist who prefers to die rather than fight back against an aggressor, we should not fault the pacifist for violating a nonexistent duty to repel violence with violence. Similarly, however much we may admire a crusader who comes to the aid of innocent victims, we should not commend him for fulfilling some kind of vague duty to humankind.
Nicholas Buccola expresses two reservations about our supposed imperfect duty to defend the rights of other people.
First, I worry that the duty’s imperfection may hollow it out of much meaning. In other words, the duty is so broad – its universal nature imposes on us a sense of responsibility for all human beings – and the ways of fulfilling the duty are so varied that it seems difficult to imagine how it might be realized in the world.
I agree wholeheartedly with Buccola’s point here. In fact I would go further and maintain that the problem raised by Buccola renders virtually incoherent the entire notion of a duty (whether perfect or imperfect) to defend the rights of others. The principle cannot be universalized or consistently applied. (This obviously requires more explanation, but that must await a future comment.) Buccola continues:
Second, I worry that the idea may invite a justification for extralegal violence that is far too broad…. Suppose, for example, that Joe believes fetuses have natural rights and, therefore, abortion is murder. Is Joe justified in bombing an abortion clinic? Suppose Jane believes in a natural right of migration. Would she be justified in taking up arms against agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they arrive to deport her neighbor? I suspect that even the most confident natural-rights thinker could be made uncomfortable if she imagined what might happen if Douglass’s conception of duty was widely accepted and acted upon.
These two hypotheticals are quite different. If the abortion debate seems intractable, this is largely because of disagreements over what it means to be a person. This is largely, though not entirely, a factual disagreement, not a moral one. In contrast, whether or not we have a right forcibly to come to the aid of an illegal immigrant is clearly a problem that must be resolved by moral and political philosophy, especially in regard to our options when confronted with unjust laws. I don’t think what any person subjectively believes is especially relevant to this issue. What matters is whether one’s beliefs can be rationally justified.
I wish to thank Nicholas Buccola for his informative, well-written, and provocative essay. It was a pleasure to read. 
[30.] Samuel Pufendorf, On the Law of Nature and Nations, trans. C. H. and W.A. Oldfather (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), 118.
[31.] Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 86.